Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae 1915
For 100 years the red poppy has been a poignant sign to remember those which had fallen serving in the British Armed Forces and those linked to it. The Royal British Legion who have the poppy as its trademark
“worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today”.
From tiny seeds
Soon after McCrae’s powerful poem became popular it inspired Moina Michael who was an American academic, , to construct red silk poppies which she would see in remembrance. These were then brought to England by a French women called Anna Guérin as a traditionally. She wrote in her 1941 Synopsis:
“Field Marshall Haig , the President , called a meeting where I explain the Idea which was adopted immediately , but they had no money in the Treasury to order their Poppies . It was September and the Armistice day in November. I offered them to order their Poppies in France for them , so my own responsibility , that they would paid them after . Gladly they accepted my offer .
Sir Francis* went to Paris with me and we made the arrangement , we ordered for 1 million flowers of silk poppies. Their first National Flanders ‘ Poppy day was an enormous success and it has developed so well , so big that for the past 15 years the ENGLISH EMPIRE was selling 25.000.000 flanders ‘ Poppies on Armistice day , poppies made by the disabled soldiers in a factory near Birmingham.”
Finally when the British Legion as it was then called, formed in 1921, it then made an order for 9 million and then sold them on that year’s Armistice’s Day which developed into Poppy Day raising an incredible £106,000; as they all sold out and the money was used to support the World War One Vets find jobs and homes. In 1921 a Major George Howson set up a factory employing disabled ex-Servicemen to make the poppies. This Poppy Factor still continues this aim.
It is reported in the Aberdeen Journal on 12 November 1921 that:
“POPPY DAY” IN ABERDEEN. A regrettable hitch, occasioned by a mistake on the other side of the Channel, and also by the unsettled weather, was accountable for the non-arrival in Aberdeen yesterday of the poppies which were to be sold in the streets on behalf of Earl Haig’s Fund for ex-Service men. The blood-red poppy is the flower most associated with the campaign in Flanders, and everyone who took part in the devastating battles of Ypres and other war-torn villages and plains of France and Belgium will readily remember the blazing mass of colour which used to brighten the shell-scarred trenches and fields when the poppies were in bloom.
To make up for the lack of poppies, flags were distributed, and a large staff of willing helpers, ex-Service men, women, and others were early on the streets collecting for the good cause. Although the stock of flags was limited there was no limit to the amount of the contribution, and everyone gave liberally. Many citizens wore scarlet flowers in their buttonholes as symbolic of the poppy and the sacred nature of the occasion.
On the 11th November 1921, the Dundee Courier recorded:
“PREPARING FOR POPPY DAY IN DUNDEE. Owing to Poppy Day being announced so shortly before the event, Dundee was at first faced with a shortage of “poppies,” but matters have taken a different complexion during the past few days through the efforts of a large number of willing workers in the city.
The number of poppies sent from France was very much less than the estimated requirements, Edinburgh receiving only 100,000 to serve the whole of Scotland. It was evident that of these Dundee could get only a small proportion, and Lord Provost Spence accordingly made it known that something would have to be done to make the effort on behalf of ex-service men more of a success by the manufacture of more poppies.
A few years later as a response to the lack of poppies over the border, Earl Haig’s wife established in Edinburgh, the Lady Haig Poppy Factory which continues to independently distribute their versions of the poppy.
The poppies are the main way in which the Royal British Legion raise money. paper and plastic poppies are sold throughout Britain but vary slightly, in England, Wales and Norther Ireland they have two red paper petals with a single green paper leaf and plastic central head and sits on a green plastic stem and until 1994 it stated Haig Fund but now just Poppy appeal. The poppies have four petals and are curled in Scotland.
The Poppy appeal has become the most successful and highest profile charity in the UK. As a result the scope of the use of flowers has grown considerably being seen not only on lapels but cars, buses, public buildings, magazines and even lamp-posts. The period of which it is worn has also increased. For the first few years after the first world war it was only worn on Armistice Day but now it is common to see the flower appear from late October to the 11th November and quite often for some the whole winter period firmly attached to coats. Sold now at every street corner or event around this time it is now impossible to avoid a seller. The poppy itself has multiplied in its nature no longer just the paper ones but ceramic and metal ones, some being dated and some so heavily bejewelled that fraudsters have sadly muscled in on the money!! Interesting early on in its history a division between the types of poppy was thought to be counterproductive. In a newspaper letter in Hull a seller wrote:
“Sir. Why should there be a distinction between the silk and cotton poppies. I, one of the many collectors, think it is a very wrong idea. The poor man’s penny, given with a free heart (in many cases it is a struggle to spare) is belittled by the ones who wish their gifts to be advertised … many a working girl and man gave their silver, but asked for no distinction, whilst one with a haughty demeanour asked for a silk poppy. On being told that our stand had no silk poppy, he replied, “Very well, I will go to another stand where they have the silk flowers. …”
The poppy has entered the art world for example when an installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies each for each solder killed from the British Empire in WWI was set up in 2014 in the Tower of London moat to amazing and poignant affect.
War of the poppies
“presenters and politicians seem to compete in a race to be first – poppies start sprouting in mid-October while the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery.”
In recent years there have developed a number of controversies. Some have suggested that the compulsory wearing for public figures has been used to give support to current military action. Some people such as newsreader, Jon Snow has called the demand that all public figures where one as ‘poppy fascism’ and others have complained it has become a seasonal “fashion accessory” There has been concerned that a web of lies has been established using the selling of poppies as a way for the Far right to engender hatred of religious minorities who ‘try to ban it’ not that this has ever been proved!
As a response to this there has been a growing development of the white poppy as an alternative. Some appear to have railed against this as a modern anti-British Legion response, thought as disrespectful and some apparently have lost their jobs. However, this poppy was introduced in 1933 and now sold by the Peace Pledge Union which is worn:
“in remembrance of all casualties of war including civilian casualties, and non-British casualties, to stand for peace, and not to glamorize war.”
Despite the White Poppy and a more recent Purple Poppy representing animals lost in conflict increased popularity it is evident that the red Poppy will continue to be a symbol of remembrance for our fallen soldiers..but let’s hope one day it only remembers conflicts long in the past of our memory.